- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 16, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas lawmakers on Wednesday endorsed Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s plan to add new restrictions to the state’s hybrid Medicaid expansion - a move that the Republican governor said would help in negotiating changes to a program providing coverage to more than 200,000 people.

The legislative panel looking at the program’s future stopped short of endorsing specific proposals to meet Hutchinson’s goal to cut as much as $60 million in annual state funding to Medicaid to make up for the cost when Arkansas begins paying a portion of the expanded coverage.

The Health Reform Legislative Task Force voted to support Hutchinson’s efforts to negotiate changes to the “private option,” which uses federal funds to purchase private insurance for low-income residents. Hutchinson has proposed renaming and overhauling the program, which was crafted as an alternative to expanding Medicaid under the federal health care law.

“It is a beginning of the discussion, it is a beginning of negotiation,” Hutchinson told the 16-member panel before its vote.

The Legislature is several months from voting on the future of the expansion, which has sharply divided Republicans who control the House and Senate and who have made gains in Arkansas primarily by running against the health care law. Hutchinson will meet with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell in Washington next month and said he plans to call a special session next spring to take up the changes he’s able to negotiate with the federal government to the program.

Hutchinson has proposed requiring some on the program to pay premiums, imposing asset limits and requiring beneficiaries to enroll in employer-sponsored insurance if available. Those using employer insurance would have their premiums and co-pays paid by the program under Hutchinson’s proposal. Hutchinson has noted that President Barack Obama’s administration is unlikely to back some of the proposed restrictions, such as an asset test.

Even if he wins federal support for such restrictions, Hutchinson is likely to face resistance from Democrats who have unanimously supported the expanded coverage in the past. Senate Minority Leader Keith Ingram said he has reservations about Hutchinson’s proposal to require those on the program to pay higher premiums if they have a certain amount of assets.

“It seems very punitive to make them sell their house or try to circumvent the law by putting the house in somebody’s name in order to get care they may very well need,” the Democrat from West Memphis said.

The governor also faces opposition from within his own party to the expanded coverage. Republican Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, who has opposed the private option in the past, abstained from Wednesday’s vote and said she’s still not sold on any form of Medicaid expansion.

“I don’t think it is sustainable,” Bledsoe, who chairs the Senate Public Health Committee, told reporters.

The panel also voted to continue working on how to achieve the $835 million in Medicaid savings Hutchinson says is needed over the next five years, with between $50 million and $60 million of that annually coming from cuts to state funding. The panel has discussed the possibility of having private companies manage some Medicaid programs to help meet that goal.

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ademillo

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